This article is adapted from Mark Schapiro’s recently published book, Carbon Shock: A Tale of Risk and Calculus From the Front Lines of the Disrupted Global Economy (Chelsea Green).
The Allegheny River pulses through the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, like a muscle. Along its waters traveled the steel that became the backbone to our railroads and skyscrapers, and the coal that fired up the factories fueling America’s twentieth-century industrial might.
In the 1980s and early ’90s, however, the steel started leaving. Today, some two decades after the flight of the last mill, the Allegheny has been transformed into a new kind of symbol—one of the modern “green” city. The river has been cleansed of many of the most toxic substances that formerly poured from those factories; now its meandering flow is featured in municipal sites against a glittering downtown skyline that hosts one of the highest concentrations of green buildings in the United States.
From green skyscrapers to a new “greenwalk” that snakes along the river, Pittsburgh has been attacking its polluting gases as if its survival depends on it—and it does. The city and surrounding communities once produced a significant portion of the steel in the United States. After the industry bottomed out, a coalition of businesspeople, city planners and environmental engineers staked out a development plan that positioned Pittsburgh as a hub of innovation in ecologically oriented design.
Today, the skyscraper windows are angled to maximize natural light, heat is piped in from thermal pools deep underground, and solar panels line the roofs far above the bustling sidewalks. The city has a full-time sustainability manager charged with shifting its energy sources away from fossil fuels by means of mass transit, urban planning, and municipal procurement policies that place a value on low-carbon alternatives. The city’s water-treatment system is considered a model even for other eco-conscious cities like San Francisco. Major property developers agreed to halve their 2003 carbon footprints by 2050; the city now has the highest concentration of LEED-certified buildings in the country.
The city’s transformation has been so complete that the G-20—the body representing developed countries, many of which have experienced similar declines in manufacturing—held its yearly conference there in 2009 and highlighted the city’s green strategy as a model for the postindustrial way forward. Pittsburgh is now one of the greenest of the midsize cities in America—a designation that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.